Our Congressman, Jamie Raskin, has been in the news lately, if you haven’t noticed. I am certain that most everyone in Maryland’s 8th Congressional District has noticed. Possibly most Marylanders have too, as an increasing number of Americans across the country awaken to his influential defense of our democracy.
I write about Jamie for two reasons. I want readers better to know who he is. And as an older guy I feel a paternalistic pride for a man I know personally (as many do In Takoma Park), who has emerged onto the national political stage.
Benefit Corporations and Legal Marijuana
For those who don’t know, Jamie Raskin served for eleven years in the Maryland Senate representing the southern section of Montgomery County close to Washington DC. He rose to leadership, and became recognized for his progressive efforts to legalize marijuana, repeal the death penalty, support same sex marriage and making Maryland in 2010 the first state to establish benefit corporations. After getting his magna cum laude J.D. degree from Harvard Law he was for some 25 years a professor of constitutional law at American University.
Marcus Raskin and the Boston Five
Possibly most important for understanding who Jamie is, his father was the late Marcus G. Raskin, a lawyer himself. He co-founded The Institute for Policy Studies in 1963, a progressive DC think tank, became a staunch opponent of the Vietnam war, led teach-ins against the war and was a member of the Boston Five — Rev. Wm Sloan Coffin, Dr. Benjamin Spock, Michael Ferber and Mitchell Goodwin – who were all indicted for conspiracy to aid resistance to the draft (they were acquitted). The senior Raskin was involved with Daniel Ellsberg in bringing the Pentagon Papers to publication, according to Wikipedia. He was active in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, and in the years following was a prolific writer, teacher, and philosopher on social causes, nuclear disarmament, national security and labor union organizing.
Jamie’s upbringing, however, wasn’t what got him elected to state office or in 2016 to Congress. It was not as though he needed to tout his educational credentials. (Inside the proverbial Washington Beltway scads of folks carry impressive credentials.) It had a lot to do with sheer affection for the guy. In any case, there didn’t seem to be much doubt that his election was a natural next step in his political leadership.
What got Jamie sent on his way to Congress is probably pretty obvious to those who know him. Locally to everyone he is just Jamie. Which means he’s accessible and disarming. The man you meet is who he is. There are no pretenses. There is no “different side” of him: a trait that bedevils so many nationally ambitious politicians who wear different faces depending on who has the money. When Jamie greets you, smiles or puts an arm over your shoulders, it means what you want it to mean.
Among the things that make Jamie special as person, I’ve noticed, is when he enters the room the space becomes energized. Enthusiasm and buoyancy take over. When he takes the microphone, the place become hushed with anticipation. Jamie has a way with words that most can only envy. His wit and humor shine through. He speaks with earnestness and sureness about his ideas on the law, and the nuances of the Constitution, placing it in today’s context and sprinkling in apt quotes from the Founders like Thomas Paine, one of his favorites. His thoughts seem to come from a deep place: maybe from the dinner table of his youth, or perhaps from his years in front of the classroom.
Perhaps there is nothing new to be said about democracy that hasn’t previously been said by Paine, Locke, de Tocqueville, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Churchill, and others. But Jamie talks in the context of today’s threats – Trumpism, the Big Lie and voter suppression — in ways that both young people and pre-baby boomers can relate to. Jamie brings a fresh way of understanding core principles. Too often, national politicians speak in platitudes or use catch phrases to trigger applause. They use code words with supporters to avoid recrimination and to obfuscate, or they just talk from their ego.
Jamie intuitively understands the potency of semantics and syntax to cut to the bone and make people think about issues and ideas in a fresh way. (I have found myself saying: I wish I could have said that.) It’s really just command of the English language like few in Congress have ever possessed.
When Jamie Raskin won election in 2016, there was no question in my mind Jamie would quickly, like cream, rise to the top. And he has. Extraordinary political circumstances confronting Congress have brought Jamie to the fore. Perhaps more rapidly than even he imagined. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, to her credit, quickly recognizing Jamie’s attributes and fortitude, tapped him as the House’s Lead Impeachment Manager for Trump’s second impeachment.
This appointment came mere days after Jamie and his wife Sarah Bloom Raskin tragically lost their son Tommy Raskin to suicide as a consequence, reportedly, of serious depression at the age of 25. Regardless of the cause, I will say this: only parents who have lost a child can comprehend this particular grief and the enduring agony. Jamie has been quoted saying that Nancy Pelosi’s handing him the job of lead impeachment manager, was a godsend, even though this was only five days after Tommy’s burial.
As is well known now, Jamie Raskin not only rose to the occasion, but was eloquent in arguing the case. That it fell on deaf Republican ears in the Senate speaks solely to the unfortunate state of the Republican party and not to the merits of the case.
Select Committee to Investigate January 6
When in July 2021 Speaker Pelosi formed the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6 Attack on the United States Capitol, she included Jamie in the nine-member panel. The committee continues its investigations, frequently making headlines. Jamie regularly appears on news shows. Given its uphill struggle to ferret out truths, the Select Committee seems to be the equivalent of Ukraine taking on and besting Putin’s wannabe Russian empire. The Select Committee keeps drilling down into the roots of Trumpists’ lies despite Republican’s juvenile efforts to ignore, discredit, and ridicule its diligence.
If our fragile democracy and republican form of government manage to survive, it will in part be due to the work of this Select Committee, the likes of Jamie Raskin, Liz Cheney, Adam Kitzinger and others who have the rare courage and the ability to speak truth to power.
At critical tipping points in America’s history, certain individuals have seemingly materialized, perhaps by the grace of God, to help lead our country to a higher moral ground. This is one of those moments, and I think Jamie Raskin is one of those extraordinary individuals. I feel fortunate to know him. In all honesty I sleep better at night because of Jamie Raskin and the part he’s playing. I believe Jamie has and is making a difference. None of us knows, of course, whether the forces of autocracy, duplicity and shrinking liberties will win out.
A Person of the Year
When Jamie first ran for Congress, he stated his ambition wasn’t to be in the political center, but to be in the moral center. This past December 2021 David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, named Jamie Raskin as “A Person of the Year.” https://www.newyorker.com/search/q/A%20person%20of%20the%20year He describes him as “an individual who embodies both the tragedy and resilience of our time.” Remnick interviewed Raskin about his efforts to write his new book, Unthinkable: Trauma, Truth and the Trials of American Democracy as a way to honor his son and to try to alleviate the depths of his grief.